Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

Social ecology is a critical theory coined by the late philosopher and political activist Murray Bookchin in the 1960s, and is associated with the pro-technology and directly-democratic side of the green movement.

It conceives of human society and nonhuman nature needing to relate to each other in non-hierarchical and complementary ways, and can be seen as a sort of middle way beyond anti-humanist forms of green radicalism, at one extreme, and pro-capitalist forms of liberal environmentalism, at the other. The philosophy proposes that in order for the social and natural worlds to reconcile, humans must first transform their relations to each other – recreating society along egalitarian, cooperative, and democratic lines – and then transform their relations towards nature – adopting an attitude to cooperation, rather than domination, towards the planet and its nonhuman forms of life. 

While starting out as a Marxist, social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin came to reject Marxism’s focus on the state, centralisation, and economic determinism, aside from admiring many of the insights of Marx himself and some of the more anti-authoritarian Marxists, such as those from the Frankfurt School tradition. By the early 1960s, he found his way to social anarchism, infusing it with an ecological and futurist dimension. He called the political-economic goal he sought “post-scarcity anarchism” – which would be based on the automation of human labour by decentralised forms of technology – and his body of analytical theories social ecology.

He chose the term social ecology to stress his hypothesis that almost all ecological problems (apart from purely natural disasters) are rooted in human social problems, with these human social problems themselves stemming from political, economic, and cultural modes of power based on hierarchy and domination. The domination of nature by humans, he claimed, arose because of the domination of humans by other humans. These sets of hierarchical social relations – classes, patriarchy, ethnic supremacy – became projected onto the natural world. In other words, the ways the powerful treated the disempowered became reflected in how they, in turn, treated nature.

It was only by reconstructing human society along non-hierarchical, decentralised, cooperative, and directly-democratic lines that he felt society would be able to mend its rift with the natural environment; as we started treating each other better, we would start treating nature better. This perspective, in many respects, anticipates what’s now called intersectionality in social justice movements, enclosed within an ecological sensibility.

He borrowed a term from the Roman philosopher Cicero in referring to the human social milieu as “second nature”, while describing natural environment as “first nature”, doing so to reorient perceptions of human beings existing within nature, rather than conceiving of the species living (hierarchically) on top of it. Second nature is like a circle within a larger circle, first nature; not like a castle upon a hill, separate from the wilderness below.

This first/second nature dichotomy was also used to raise awareness of the fact that nature as a whole should not be thought of as mere wilderness, distinct from human intervention. Because, as humans are the first species capable of consciously altering their own environments – to an to extent that they can direct the flow of nature itself somewhat – so much of what we think of as “nature” is as much a result of human design as a city or a computer: gardens, pastures, parks, and even some forests.


One of the most beautiful examples of this sentiment from animated cinema can be found in the film Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. At the film’s centrepoint, the main character, Takeo, on a visit to the countryside, looks out into the serene landscape and remarks on how glorious unspoiled nature is. She is in turn informed by her farmer companion, “No, everything you see before you is man-made”.

Humans should therefore, according to social ecology, take on an ethical responsibility as caretakers of the Earth, abandoning the idea of “dominating” or “conquering” nature in the name of progress. Instead, Bookchin emphasised ecological stewardship, stressing that progress could be achieved for both the human and nonhuman spheres of life by practicing cooperation with nature, with humans adopting the naturalist values of non-hierarchy, mutual aid, unity-in-diversity, and complementarity. This would, according to social ecology, lead to a dialectical synthesis of first nature and second nature, incorporating the best of both, which could be called “free nature”.

He also rejected the notion that there was anything inherently anti-ecological about technology, claiming that technology – or “technics”, borrowing a term from Lewis Mumford – could be used for good or ill depending on whether they were utilised for democratic/decentralist or authoritarian/hierarchical purposes. Bookchin, and other members of his Institute of Social Ecology, argued that technics such as fossil fuels and nuclear weapons are coded primarily for authoritarian purposes, while solar and wind power, as well as micro-manufacturing, are more coded for participatory purposes, enabling communities to become more self-reliant and less controllable by the the powers of the state and capital. We should therefore seek to use decentralist and ecological technics to enhance human and nonhuman well-being, especially through the use of automation (or “cybernation”) to get rid of needless toil from human labour, eventually reaching a condition of relative post-scarcity, as long as individuals agreed to live in an egalitarian and sustainable manner.

Another distinct feature of social ecology is its conception of historical progress. Seeing itself as part of the legacy of Enlightenment humanism, with a strong belief in scientific rationalism blended with an ethics of non-hierarchical cooperation, Bookchin agreed with Peter Kropotkin, and contra Marxism, that the move towards capitalism and the nation-state had in fact been a step backwards; and that “industrialisation from below” may have been possible had the municipal-confederations of the Middle Ages become the dominant political-economic model instead of the nation-state. Social ecology therefore always stresses decentralisation and democratisation over centralism and hierarchy, believing the former two are far better for both society and ecology.

Blending the dialectical thought of both GWF Hegel and Karl Marx, social ecology calls its analysis of historical forces “dialectical naturalism”, a middle way of sorts between the dialectical idealism of Hegel and the dialectical materialism of Marx. Dialectical naturalism examines history in terms of its “potentialities” – that is, capacities to realise social forms enabling non-hierarchy and free flourishing – and assesses the “rationality” versus “irrationality” of a society based on how well it actualises those potentialities in practice.

Bookchin and other social ecologists believed that the fullest actualisation of the current society’s potentialities would be a post-scarcity ecological society, founded on decentralised systems of direct democracy and the humane use of technology. This cannot, according to Bookchin, be conceived in Marxist teleological terms, as some kind of inevitable end-point of historical development, but as an ongoing process, a continuous approximation of an ideal; that ideal being a society of ecological balance, egalitarian cooperation, personal freedom, and social-ecological complementarity.

Since the 1960s and 70s, social ecology has branched off in several directions. Bookchin himself used it as the basis for a political theory he called Communalism (with a capital-c), carried on today by the Norwegian group New Compass, philosopher John P. Clark developed its dialectical methodology and liberatory political implications into a blend he calls communitarian anarchism, and Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan used it as one of the components for his ideology of “democratic confederalism”, which has shaped much of the Kurdish freedom movement in southeast Turkey (Bakur Kurdistan) and northern Syria (Rojava Kurdistan); where, following Bookchin’s advice, activists have established directly-democratic popular assemblies, worker cooperatives, and an economy of the commons which stresses ecological stewardship.

While the aesthetic-cultural solarpunk movement evolved independently of social ecology, they have so much in common that they could even be regarded as the same tradition by different names. Solarpunk’s emphasis on the liberatory and ecological use of technology sounds as if it were ripped straight from the pages of Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism in 1971.

What is Solarpunk?

What is Solarpunk?

From the perspective of the early 21st century, things look pretty grim. A deadly cocktail of crises engulf the people of planet Earth and all other forms of biotic life which share it: a geopolitical crisis, an economic crisis, and a worsening ecological crisis due to global warming, which stems from a political-economic system that requires fossil fuels to power its technostructure.

Culture, having as it does a symbiotic relationship with material conditions, reflects a lot of these crises in fiction and the arts. The 2000s and 2010s were replete with apocalyptic imagery of a future ravaged by war, totalitarianism, runaway weapons technology, killer viruses, zombies, and environmental collapse. Not that such narratives are unneeded. At best, they can serve as a wake-up call for those caught up in the myth that we had reached the “end of history” with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism on a planetary scale. But if they remain the primary vision our globalised culture has of the potential future, they can end up reproducing the pervasive cynicism and despair which makes all crises seem inescapable. 
This is why solarpunk is of value.


Solarpunk is a Revolt of Hope Against Despair

Solarpunk is a rebellion against the structural pessimism in our late visions of how the future will be. Not to say it replaces pessimism with Pollyanna-ish optimism, but with a cautious hopefulness and a daring to tease out the positive potentials in bad situations. Hope that perhaps the grounds of an apocalypse (revelation) might also contain the seeds of something better; something more ecological, liberatory, egalitarian, and vibrant than what came before, if we work hard at cultivating those seeds.

Any tour of the geeky parts of the Internet will reveal an assortment of different traditions ending in the suffix “punk”: steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, and so on. All the many different punk science-fiction movements imagine how things could turn out if society and technology took a different turn. While steampunk imagines a past that might have been, based on Victorian-age technology, solarpunk imagines a future that could be, based on current-age technology. It anticipates the type alternative history science-fiction the people of the future might write about us if things turn out horribly. But more than just a new science-fiction or fantasy subgenre, it’s also practical vision for (maybe) bringing the things it imagines into being in the real world.

You may ask what exactly is meant to be “punk” about what a cynic might see as the lovechild of hippies and futurists. After all, isn’t punk meant to denote anger and rage at the “the system”, as well as black leather and spikey hair? Punk is more of an ethos than a specific set of signifiers, implying rebellion against, and negation of, the dominant paradigm and everything repressive about it. So in that sense, in a world being torn apart by a planetary system based on avarice and power-lust and ecocide, solarpunk might be the most “punk” movement of all.


Solarpunk is Eco-Speculation, in Both Fiction and Reality

Solarpunk is a (mostly) aesthetic-cultural and (sometimes) ethical-political tendency which attempts to negate the dominant idea which grips popular consciousness: that the future must be grim, or at least grim for the mass of people and nonhuman forms of life on the planet. Looking at the millennia-old rift between human society and the natural world, it sets as its ethical foundation the necessity of mending this rift, transforming our relation to the planet by transcending those social structures which lead to systemic ecocide.
It draws a lot from the philosophy of social ecology, which also focused on mending this rift by restructuring society to function more like ecology: non-hierarchical, cooperative, diverse, and seeking balance.

Solarpunk’s vision is of an ecological society beyond war, domination, and artificial scarcity; where everything is powered by green energy and a culture of hierarchy and exclusion has been replaced by a culture founded on radical inclusiveness, unity-in-diversity, free cooperation, participatory democracy, and personal self-realisation.

This would be a world of decentralised eco-cities, 3D printing, vertical farms, solar glass windows, wild or inventive forms of dress and design, and a vibrant cosmopolitan aesthetic; where technology is no longer used to exploit the natural world, but to automate away needless human labour and to help restore the damage the Oil Age has already done. Solarpunk desires societies of polycultural ethnic diversity and gender liberation, where each person is able to actualise themselves in societal environment of free experimentation and communal caring; and driven by an overriding ethos of compassionate rationalism, where science and reason are not seen as antithetical to imagination and spirituality, but as concepts which bring out the best in each other.

It attempts to bring such values in being in the here-and-now, prefiguring the world to be created, through science-fiction and fantasy literature, arts, fashion, filmmaking, music, games, and a set of ideas which inform political, economic, and ecological activism.

Solarpunk stories are likely to feature characters from (currently) oppressed or marginalised groups living more freely, equally, and inclusively than they are able to now; exploring an exotic world of body modification, gender and sexual discovery, new forms of technology – and dealing with conflicts from the remnants of the old world as well as the unique problems which are sure to arise in a very different social scene. Solarpunk arts are driven by mixtures of multimedia technology and more traditional handcrafts, blending such disparate things as anime, Art Nouveau, Afrofuturism, indigenous American designs, and Edwardian fashion into a stew of artistic cross-pollination. And all of the above try to take the existing aspects of our current world and repurpose them into something more liberatory, specialising in reframing, pastiche, and reimagining of existing characters, styles, and trends in a very different context. Blending the diverse aesthetic styles of several different cultures, solarpunk engenders a celebration of hybridity while still being sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation – “taking” instead of “partaking” – from subordinate cultures by dominant cultures


Solarpunk is the Positive Articulation of a Better World

Not content to accept the dictates of a tomorrow ruled by authoritarian states, rapacious corporations, and a despoiled biosphere, solarpunk is an eco-futurist movement which tries to think our way out of catastrophe by imagining a future most people would actually like to live in, instead of ones we should be trying to avoid; a future characterised by a reconciliation between humanity and nature, where technology is utilised for human-centric and eco-centric ends, and where a society driven by hierarchy and competition has given way to one organised on the basis of freedom, equality, and cooperation. It’s purpose is to serve as a compelling counter-narrative to the material and ideational conditions which keep us trapped in an authoritarian and ecocidal world where, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”.

There already exist bits and pieces of just such an alternative right now, if only their potentials were drawn out. Worker cooperatives, self-sufficient eco-communities, directly-democratic popular assemblies, voluntary federations of small polities, mutual aid networks, community land trusts; all of these could form, it utilised, a very different kind of political-economic structure than the one being pushed by neoliberal globalisation. Likewise, technologies such as solar and wind and wave energy, 3D printing, vertical farming, micro-manufacturing, free software, open-source hardware, and robotic machinery which can automate away human labour all serve to illustrate the possibilities of an ecological and decentralised technostructure where the means of production are under popular control, rather than used to enhance the profit and power of a ruling elite.

In politics, solarpunk belongs to the wider tradition of the decentralist left, associated with such thinkers and activists as Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Emma Goldman, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, E.F. Schumacher, and Murray Bookchin. It rejects the false choice between the Scylla of market capitalism and the Charybdis of state socialism, between rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, instead opting for a society which reconciles a healthy individuality with communal solidarity.

A solarpunk polity would replace centralised forms of state government with decentralised confederations of self-governing communities, each administering themselves through many forms of direct and participatory democracy, with countless kinds of horizontally-structured voluntary associations taking care of judicial, environmental, and societal issues in ways which seek to maximise both personal autonomy and social solidarity.

A solarpunk “economy of the commons” would dispense with both profiteering corporations and statist central planning in favour of worker-run cooperatives, collaborative exchange networks, common pool resources, and control of investment by local communities. The aim of the economy would be reoriented from production-for-exchange and industrial “growth” to production-for-use and increasing the bio-psycho-social well-being of people and planet. Production would be moved as close as is possible to the point of consumption, with the long term aim being a relative self-sufficiency in goods and manufacturing. Decentralist forms of eco-technology would be used to help make work more participatory and enjoyable – “artisan-ising” the productive process itself – as well as automate away dull, dirty, and dangerous forms of work wherever possible. After realising an appropriate degree of post-scarcity, local self-sufficiency, and labour automation, it may even be feasible to abolish money as an unneeded nuisance in the allocation of resources.

A solarpunk culture would strive to dissolve every form of social hierarchy and domination – whether based on class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, or species – dispersing the power some individuals or groups wield over others and thus increasing the aggregate freedom of all; empowering the disempowered and including the excluded. It is rooted in the legacy of such liberatory movements as anti-authoritarian socialism, feminism, racial justice, queer and trans liberation, disability struggles, animal liberation, and digital freedom projects.


Solarpunk is Practical Utopianism

As you can see, there have always been alternatives, conventional wisdom just dismisses them out of hand as “utopian”. But is utopianism really such a bad thing? In one way, yes. The word itself, coined by Thomas More, is a Latin pun which means both “no-place” (ou-topia) but also “good-place” (eu-topia); implying a place so good it couldn’t exist. Before and after More, there were attempts by outopian dreamers to craft perfect worlds in which no real problems existed, such projects also tended to be totalitarian and centrally planned societies with little personal freedom.

Yet there have also been attempts to craft future societies which weren’t flawless “end of history” scenarios, but that tried to eliminate the structural conditions which limited personal autonomy and enforced inequality upon people. Such eutopian visionaries mixed a spirit of hopefulness with an attitude of practicality, with one tempering the other. It is this latter tradition that solarpunk tries to take its cues from. So it is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place).

So solarpunk is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place). It sees utopia as a constant process of approximating an ideal, not reaching a light at the end of a tunnel. Solarpunk acknowledges that our utopia of social liberation and ecological stewardship may never be achieved 100%, but if we at least keep that vision in mind, throwing our efforts into making the world a bit better wherever we can, then at least every step we take towards achieving that utopia will be a step in the right direction. It will be progress, and, for those it positively impacts, liberation.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

Why “Social” Anarchism?

Why “Social” Anarchism?

You may have wondered why I keep referring to social anarchism rather than just anarchism when I talk about the subject. Social anarchism is in fact what most who understand anarchism are referring to when they talk about “anarchism” without another word in front of or after it. 

It is an ethical-political traditional which (contrary to popular belief) does not seek chaos or disorder, but the “flattening” of social, political, and economic power relations: dissolving hierarchical authority into horizontal power, so that people are able to govern themselves as free equals rather than having to take orders from centralised institutions of control and subordination. So, as a process, if focuses on the continual empowerment of the disempowered, inclusion of the excluded, and the decentralisation of power and authority.

It seeks (in the long term) a directly-democratic and non-hierarchical society characterised by:

  • Individual autonomy
  • Voluntary association.
  • A ethos of communal individuality rather than either rugged individualism or smothering collectivism, balancing the personal and social instincts.
  • The dissolution of all forms of oppressive social hierarchy and domination: racism, sexism, queerphobia, ableism, and the domination of nature.
  • A cooperative economy of the commons premised on workplace self-management; beyond the profit motive, market capitalism, and central planning by the state.
  • And the decentralisation of government into voluntary confederations of a directly-democratic, self-governing communities.

As a tradition, social anarchism first emerged out of the wider socialist movement in the 1860s, with most of its foundational traits being developed within the First International out of the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, only taken in a more anti-authoritarian direction by figures such as Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume, and later in a more communalistic direction by Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, and Emma Goldman. It has been regarded by many as a confluence of the best of (classical) liberalism and (democratic) socialism, with its economics being described as libertarian socialism, in constrast to the authoritarian state socialism of most Marxist movements and to paternalistic social democracy as it exists on most of the liberal left. It also contrasts with the so-called “libertarianism” of the neoliberal right, a term they appropriated from social anarchists in the mid 20th century.

It is by far the majority tendency among those who describe themselves as anarchists and to many it is even considered the only form of anarchism, and it’s followers the sole legitimate users of the label.

So if it’s the primary (or even only) form of anarchism anyway, why the need for the adjective “social”?

Well, there are three reasons:

1. Specificity 

There are countless ideologies which slap the prefix “anarcho-” onto themselves and whose adherents describe themselves as “anarchists”: anarcho-capitalists, “post-left” anarchists, anarcho-primitivists, market anarchists, national-anarchists, anarcho-monarchists (yes, really).
Specifying a more particular tradition helps reorient things and disassociates one’s ideas/practices from every silly belief-system which self-identifies with the a-word.

2. Accessibility

The word “anarchist” is quite loaded and carries with it a whole heap of stereotypes and myths. Calling yourself an anarchist to someone uninitiated with anarchist theory is likely to make them think you’re insane, or perhaps just immature.  

Social anarchism on the other hand is something they’re at least likely to Google before dismissing you as some kind of nutter.

3. Definition

Adding the word social helps emphasise the positive features of the philosophy rather than just its oppositional aspects. The very etymology of the word anarchism means “without/against rulership”. So the term anarchism by itself refers to what it’s against rather than what it’s for.

Social however implies communality, popular order, and the connections between individuals. So putting them together the two terms – social anarchism – denote “society without rulers” and “sociality against rulership”; implying that authentic human sociability itself is contrary to the logic of hierarchical power.

The term itself isn’t even new. It first emerged in the late 19th century as a way to distinguish the anarchist mainstream from various individualist or egoist strains which promoted a kind of anti-social worldview opposed to building popular movements and in many cases content to merely live freely within the capitalist state system rather than doing anything to get rid of it.

So do try to make the term more popular if you can. There’s at least a slightly better chance that more people will google it, learning what real anarchism is all about, rather than dismissing it out of hand as mindless chaos or black-clad teenagers hurling Molotov cocktails and getting smashy-smashy with shop windows.

For a world beyond hierarchy and domination; for freedom, equality, and solidarity; for Social Anarchism.

About

About

The aesthetic-cultural philosophy of solarpunk and the politics of social anarchism were practically made for each other. This site attempts to combine them. 

“The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking”

– Murray Bookchin

Solarpunk is a new science-fiction and cultural movement dedicated to imagining a bright hopeful future powered by green energy, where technology is used for human-centric and eco-centric ends. It envisions moving us beyond artificial scarcity and toil while helping mend the rift between humanity and nature; looking beyond many of the dark and grim tropes so common in dystopian visions of the future. Artistically it takes influence from Art Nouveau, African and East-Asian art, and other attempts to blend the organic with the synthetic. It is a form of futurism which focuses on what we should hope for rather than on what to avoid.

Social anarchism is an ethical-political tradition which grew out of the fusion of classical liberalism and anti-authoritarian socialism in the 19th century, combining a concern for personal freedom with the desire for popular liberation from social hierarchy, political authoritarianism, and economic exploitation. It seeks, in the long-term, a decentralised directly-democratic polity and an economy of the commons based on direct participant-control of all institutions, while also prefiguring the values of such a society in the here-and-now: individual autonomy, voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, and non-hierarchical forms of self-organisation.

Solarpunk Anarchists continues a pair of disciplines within social anarchism called social ecology and post-scarcity anarchism (PSA), which saw possibilities for freedom through utilising technology for liberatory ends – instead of the profiteering and dominative ends of the capitalist state system – repurposing technics to eliminate dull, dirty, and dangerous forms of labour, while decentralising their scale to allow greater human-control.

We believe the sensibilities of social ecology/PSA fit solarpunk like a glove, and produce written material which tries to bridge the gap between the world we’re stuck in now, and the liberated world we seek to create.